Anti-slavery in London’s Fitzrovia

GIGS KEBAB SHOP has been in Tottenham Street near to London’s Goodge Street station for over fifty years. Frequently, during the twelve years that I studied at University College London, I used to purchase a pita filled with lamb shish kebab from Gigs and then sit on a bench in the open space next to the nearby American church opposite Heal’s furniture shop on Tottenham Court Road. While I enjoyed the snack, hopeful pigeons used to wander around my feet, hoping for crumbs from the student’s pita. In those far-off days, I had no idea that Tottenham Street had once been the home of an important figure in the movement to abolish the slave trade. It was only this month, March 2021, that we noticed his house at 37 Tottenham Street, which is close to the northern end of Goodge Place, and used to bear the number ‘13’.

Olaudah Equiano, also known as ‘Gustavus Vassa’ (c1745-1797) was born in what is now Nigeria (see https://equiano.uk/the-equiano-project/ for a useful timeline of his life). In 1756, he was kidnapped by slavers and sent to the Caribbean, where he was sold to a British naval officer, MH Pascal. Between 1756 and 1762, he served with Pascal in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War with France and was baptised in 1759 in London. From 1763 to 1766, he was ‘owned’ by Robert King of Montserrat. During this time, he made money ‘on the side’ and was able to purchase his freedom in 1766. The following year, we find him in London, from where he set sail to Italy and Turkey. In 1773, this intrepid man set sail on an expedition to the Arctic. Its aim was to find a new passage to India. After more adventures in the Caribbean and Central America, Equiano informed the abolitionist Granville Sharp (1735-1813) about the Zong massacre of 1781, during which more than 130 enslaved Africans were murdered on the Zong, a British slave ship.

After a trip to New York and Philadelphia in 1784-85, Equiano returned to London, where he became involved in the relief of the plight of ‘black’ people in London. After another sea voyage to Sierra Leone, we find him back in London in 1788. In his book “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself” (published in 1789), he recorded:

“March the 21st, 1788, I had the honour of presenting the Queen with a petition on behalf of my African brethren, which was received most graciously by her Majesty”.

The Queen was Charlotte, wife of King George III. Part of his petition was as follows:

“I presume, therefore, gracious Queen, to implore your interposition with your royal consort, in favour of the wretched Africans; that, by your Majesty’s benevolent influence, a period may now be put to their misery; and that they may be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of freemen, and admitted to partake of the blessings of your Majesty’s happy government; so shall your Majesty enjoy the heartfelt pleasure of procuring happiness to millions, and be rewarded in the grateful prayers of themselves, and of their posterity.”

Although Equiano might have begun writing his “The Interesting Narrative…” in London’s Baldwin’s Gardens (number 53) near Grays Inn Road, from where he sent the petition to the Queen, he had moved to the house in Tottenham Street by the 25th of June 1788, according to an interesting article by Gene Adams, published in “Camden History Review Vol.29” (2005).  Tottenham Street is near Warren Street, where The Committee for the Relief of the London Black Poor was founded in 1786. It is also close to the former Tottenham Court Chapel founded in 1756 by George Whitefield (1714-1770), an American founder of Methodism, who had inspired Equiano. The chapel stood where the American church stands today. By 1774-5, Equiano was already a ‘Calvinist-Methodist’ Christian.

The house on Tottenham Street, which bears a plaque recording his stay there is undistinguished architecturally. Around the corner from it on the east side of the north end of Goodge Place, there is a fading mural, painted by Brian Barnes in 2000, which depicts Equiano with other local celebrities, all in 18th century attire. This is next to another mural depicting the nearby Post Office Tower and four women, two of whom are wearing Indian saris.

Equiano married an English woman, Susan Cullen, in 1792 from Soham in Cambridgeshire. They had two daughters, Anna Maria (1793–1797) and Joanna (1795–1857), who were both baptised in Soham i (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaudah_Equiano#Marriage_and_family). The family lived in Chandos Street in London, where his youngest daughter died.  Susan died in 1796, aged 34, and Equiano the following year.

For many years after his death, it was not known where Equiano was buried. Eventually, it was discovered that he had been buried in the churchyard of Whitefield’s chapel, on the site of the present American church. Unlike many of the other corpses that had been buried there and then later shifted to a cemetery in Chingford in 1898, Equiano’s was amongst those which were not shifted and therefore must lie within the churchyard of the former Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Chapel (https://equiano.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/EQUIANO-Campaigner-MP1.pdf), probably near where I used to sit on a bench eating my kebab from Gigs. Looking at an old map, I found that the graveyard was a little to the north of where I used to munch my lunch.

Abolishing slavery and an obelisk

BLACK LIVES MATTERED MUCH to young Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. One day when he was walking with his horse from Cambridge to London, he stopped on a slope that was above and in sight of the Feathers Inn at Wadesmill (Hertfordshire) next to a bridge crossing the River Rib on a stretch of the old Roman road known as Ermine Street.

A student at St Johns College in Cambridge, he had just won a prize for his essay (in Latin) that addressed the subject “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” Soon after writing his piece, he published an English translation of it. Clarkson, who had done much research into slavery past and in his time, was thoroughly disapproving of the slave trade. The concluding paragraph of his long and well-reasoned essay, rich in factual material, summarises the young man’s objection to slavery:

“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

With the Feathers inn ahead of him, he had a revelation. In his own words:

“Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785”

That revelation, like a Dick Whittington moment or the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, set Thomas on his life’s mission to abolish slavery. His essay inspired the formation of a small group of Quakers, whose aim was to lobby the British Parliament to campaign against slavery. Soon, this led to the formation of a non-denominational ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (in 1787).  Clarkson was a member of this committee. It was he who encouraged the young (and now well-known) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a Member of Parliament, to join the group.

Although it was Wilberforce who introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, it was Clarkson, who worked tirelessly to persuade the British public of the desirability to bring an end to the trade in human cargoes. Clarkson travelled about 35,000 miles throughout Britain, amassing information about the slave trade and persuading people of its evil nature. He collected evidence of the cruelties and injustices of slavery from 20,000 sailors who had worked or were working on slave carrying ships. He wrote several pamphlets about the slave trade and its impropriety and assembled visual aids with which he could dramatically purvey its horrors and cruelties to the British public, whom he encountered during his extensive travels.

When, finally in 1807, the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s immense efforts to defeat the slave trade. Called “To Thomas Clarkson On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.”, it goes like this:

“Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:

How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee

Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;

But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,

Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,

Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,

Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,

First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time

With unabating effort, see, the palm

Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!

The bloody Writing is for ever torn,

And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,

A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find

Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!”

It was descending the hill to Wadesmill that set Clarkson, the real initiator of the abolition of the slave trade, that set him to “… climb that obstinate Hill…” And his halt near Wademill, in sight of the Feathers inn has not been forgotten. An obelisk by the roadside commemorates Clarkson’s ‘light bulb moment’. The base of the obelisk bears the words:

“On the spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1775 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

The monument was erected in 1879 for a chess playing barrister, Arthur Giles Puller (1833-1885) of Youngsbury, which is close to Wadesmill. According to a web page , http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_27.html:

“In 1833, Basil Montague asked Thomas Clarkson to show a party of abolitionists, the exact spot where he decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. A young Charles Merivale went with them. Years later he became Dean of Ely and told his story to Arthur Giles Puller, of Youngsbury, who offered to help him fulfil his promise to mark the spot. Charles Merivale unveiled the monument on 8th October, 1879.”

Charles Merivale (1808-1893), apart from becoming the Dean of Ely, was one of the founders of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which was first held in 1829. Destined for a career in India (which he decided against), he studied both at Haileybury College and St Johns College Cambridge, where Clarkson had also studied.

Clarkson’s monument was restored by members of the US Airforce in the 1950s. in June 1972, it was moved 9 yards up the road to allow some road widening. Finally, in November 2007, a very thorough restoration and repair of the monument was completed. Now in 2020, part of the base looks as if it could benefit from some more repair work.

The monument, unlike many of those that commemorate slave-owners, is a modest memorial to a man whose efforts and achievements have been overshadowed by those of his fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce. I am very grateful to our dear friends who live in Hatfield (Hertfordshire) for showing me this monument after we had enjoyed a large lunch at the Feathers Inn that Clarkson was able to see when he resolved to bring the slave trade to an end.